Pooping in China
Monthly reflections on living, teaching, and moving bowels abroad
Editor's Note: Brandon Jeune is a 25-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches English to children in China. He writes "Pooping in China" and distributes it to friends and family as an email every month. He has given us permission to serialize the emails here.
November 1, 2012
Hello there, boils and ghouls! (Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for such a brilliant pun; you’ll have to thank the Crypt Keeper for that one).
I want to start by wishing you a very HORRIFYING Halloween! Or perhaps harrowing? Hellish? Plenty of ‘H’ words will suffice, but I personally think ‘happy’ ranks somewhat low on said list. Even ‘hermaphroditic’ is a seemingly more apt alternative, especially considering some of the costumes people choose to wear. So, in the vein of Bill Maher, I’m making a new rule, right here and now: You simply can’t use the same adjective for Halloween, Thanksgiving, AND British Christmas. It just can’t work that way. The holidays are starkly different, and the feeling we get from glutting ourselves on candy is not the same feeling we get from glutting ourselves on turkey, or glutting ourselves on frenzied consumer--,er--hmmm.
I can’t believe I’m actually sticking to my own deadline and getting this message out before the end of the month! I find this to be a major accomplishment, and am actually patting myself on the back as I typkds[as AS
‘zzka oPP;’; S ,,M;;DSA (It’s very difficult to pat and type at once. Go ahead, give it a try). (Okay, so it’s actually not that difficult, but I had already committed to the joke before trying it).
These past thirty days have found me pretty well. I’ve been dragged along on the culture shock current, experiencing each stage in turn. Dizzying highs! Crippling lows! Caramel and nougat-filled middles! The homesickness comes in waves, as does the frustration with cultural differences. Sometimes, I see the rampant littering, the obnoxious hawk-spit-snot rocketing by passersby all over the place (including indoors), the ubiquitous clouds of thick gray cigarette smoke, and I feel impelled to scream out my disgust, strangely enough, by way of familiar bumper sticker slogans: HEY! LITTER BUGS ME! SECOND-HAND SMOKE KILLS! SPITTING ALL OVER MY APARTMENT BUILDING’S LOBBY IS…GROSS! With some things, I try to remind myself: Hey, just because things are different here doesn’t mean they’re wrong. And then I step into an elevator with three middle-aged men all puffing away, one brazenly digging through his nose with his pointer finger, another literally screaming into his cell phone, and as I try to hold my breath for 9 floors I think: well, okay. Some things are wrong.
October started with a vacation, and while I was happy to take advantage of some time off, I can’t help but feel that, after a mere two weeks of work, a whole week off is a bit undeserved. It was the mid-Autumn festival first. I’ll try to recount the related mythology from memory as best I can. In ancient times, there were nine suns, and their heat scorched the Earth. The people longed for relief. One day, a great warrior named Houyi answered their plea. He took up his bow and arrow, shot eight of the suns out of the sky, and delivered the people from suffering. The moon, personified by a beautiful woman in white, saw the spectacle, fell deeply in love with Houyi, and flew down to Earth to be with him.
And that’s about all I gathered from watching the annual children’s pageant at the kindergarten where I teach. Of course, I’m leaving out a good bit, and perhaps mistranslating the rest, as my Chinese is still so lacking as to make even a six year old’s narration challenging. In addition, there was a bit of distraction from the spoken word by way of the kindergarten’s only other male teacher fervently prancing about the stage through most of the show in an uncomfortably revealing open-chested blue silk getup, brandishing a foil sword and performing what I suppose was the Houyi legend interpretative dance. For a good mental picture of this performance, simply imagine the sorts of motions trapeze artists might make if they suddenly lapsed into cardiac arrest in mid-air.
In celebration of this legend and the proper arrival of fall, the Chinese have the day off. They use the time to return home and visit with family, and eat moon cakes, which are small round pastries filled with nuts and fruit, and pretty delicious.
Following mid-Autumn day is National Week. Imagine July 4th spread out for a whole week, with less hotdogs and more fireworks, and you’ll get the idea. Public schools are closed, and so…va-ca-tion, all I ever wanted…Tiny, one of my coworkers whom I’ve mentioned before (she’s the tiny one) invited me out to her family’s hometown of Huangmao for the week, and I happily accepted the offer.
We started out on a Sunday morning, and left for the station a full hour before our bus departed (the trans-city line is about a mile from our school). The plan was to take a city bus to the main bus station, and go from there. As the city bus pulled up to the curb, however, I felt a jolt of dread: there’s no way. Just no way. The amount of people that had already managed to cram themselves into this vehicle was truly dumbfounding. If a tiny car packed full of clowns had happened by at that moment, the driver likely would have turned to his fellow clowns and exclaimed, “Holy shit, how do you boys think they managed that one!?” I mean, honestly, if you sat Criss Angel in the middle of this thing, he wouldn’t be able to escape. Yet somehow, when the bus screeched to a momentary halt before us and the door slid open, we managed to shove our way into the throng and find a space almost big enough for our bodies. From then on, it was one of the more uncomfortable rides of my life.
Reaching the first intersection, it became evident: traveling during National Week is absolutely fucking insane. Dump a tub full of matchbox cars onto an outspread Loudi city map, and it’ll give you a pretty accurate representation of National Week traffic. Cars swerved blindly, careening through oncoming traffic; motorcycles zipped by with mere inches to spare; the bus lurched through the mess with frantic starts and stops, all us passengers jolting and swaying as a single entity wherever inertia decided to propel us. To call it uncomfortable would be to redefine understatement; I’ve been in crowds at heavy metal concerts that afforded more personal space.
Sometime later, after being stopped in the mother of all clusterfucks for almost ten minutes, the driver sighed, shut off the ignition, and turned to us. I couldn’t understand him, but by the immediate reaction of the fellow passengers, I got the gist of what he had said: Fuck this. I give up. You’re better off walking from here.
Everyone disembarked. We pushed down the steps and stretched for a moment, before Tiny turned to me and asked casually, “What time is it?”
I yawned and pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. “Um…9:54.” I started to slip the phone back in my pocket when it hit me. “Gah! 9:54!”
Our bus left at 10:00.
We broke into a sprint, along with hundreds of other late travelers, heading for a quarter mile-long bridge that lead to the station. Halfway across, I had a sudden inkling that I should look behind me, and so I turned and realized that poor 4’ 10” Tiny was still all the way back at the bridge’s beginning, trying to force her legs to carry her as fast as they possibly could, and failing miserably. I stopped, waited, and accepted the inevitable: We weren’t reaching our bus on time.
And I was right. We trotted into the station at 10:08 and made straight for the back. Tiny pulled out the ticket. “That one.” She pointed.
Hallelujah! It was still there! We gave the driver our ticket, stowed our bags, and settled into our seats. Other passengers were still boarding, and I sighed with relief. We weren’t the only ones. Everything was okay. We made it.
Ten minutes passed. I wondered why we were still stationed, but figured everything was running behind, on account of the magnitude of travel all around us. I pulled a book out of my bag and was just cracking it open when the driver approached us. “This isn’t your bus.”
Tiny looked up. “What?”
He waved our tickets in front of us. “You’re on the wrong bus. Your bus left a half hour ago.”
We jumped off the bus. A worker jogged up, barking orders into a walkie-talkie. He and Tiny had a rapid-fire exchange. A motorcycle zoomed up beside us. The driver turned, patting his seat frantically. Tiny hopped on and set her bag on her lap. “We have to catch up with the bus. We’ll take a motorcycle.”
“Oh. Okay. But, uh-” I looked at the two-seater bike, the impatient stare of the driver, and the makeshift metal luggage rack extending from the bike’s back end. “So I’ll just sit here then.” I swung my leg over the bar. My butt had barely grazed the metal before the driver gunned it. Vroom! We were off.
They say when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. But when you’re about to die on a motorcycle, you’re way too busy watching all kinds of other things flash by to think anything other than: oh shit oh shit oh shit oh SHIT SHIT OH HOLY SHIT oh shit oh shit shit shit! We whip around a bus- SHIT! We zip between two cars in either lane, literal inches between my elbow and a taxi’s side-view mirror- SHIT! We cross into the oncoming lane in an attempt to pass a slow-moving truck- SHIT! We’re heading straight for a fast-moving truck! SHIT SHIT SHIT!!!
By the time we finally spotted the bus pulled over on the gravel shoulder ahead, I had already promised future piety to several deities I don’t worship, if only they’d help me survive. As the bike rumbled to a stop and I slid off the metal rack, rubbing my sore behind, I wondered if such a plea for mercy, given the extenuating circumstances, could be considered a binding agreement. I did a quick mental backpedal. “Er, yeahhh, about that…all I can say is it’s a good thing I don’t believe any of you actually exist, or I’d really be in for it now.” And then I started to wonder who I was even talking to.
The bus driver was livid. He demanded a 100 yuan payment for us holding him up, and as we grudgingly obliged and stepped on board, we realized the passengers were similarly pissed off. They frowned, glared, crossed their arms. I gave a sheepish grimace and looked for a place to sit, quickly realizing there wasn’t one. Believing we weren’t coming, the driver had sold our seats to some other passengers. Thankfully, two kind gentlemen offered to sell us their seats (our seats) for the low low price of, once again, 100 yuan.
100 yuan is roughly the equivalent of $18. A pain in the ass to fork over so much extra just to sit in a seat we already paid for, but honestly, I was happy to pay it if it meant not standing for the next four hours. I handed over the cash. The men stood and took hold of a rail in the aisle. Twenty minutes later one was, somehow, fast asleep. Now I’ve personally been known to easily, and often unintentionally, nod off in strange and uncomfortable places, but damned if this guy isn’t on a whole ‘nother level.
Four hours later we pulled into a station in the city of Wugang. Our next bus was rickety, dented, caked with mud, and stuffed full of people, all wide-eyed and openly gaping at me in wonder as I stepped on board. Bang! I slammed my head directly into the low-hanging doorway, and stumbled the rest of the way in as the bus started up.
I stood, hanging on a rail, as the bus shook and swerved through the backroads of Wugang and on towards the small village of Huangmao. The road was a single lane, and we continually stopped short as another vehicle approached around a bend, one of us then having to often reverse a considerable distance to where there was room to back onto the shoulder and let the other pass. Then, the driver would floor it, and once more we’d be swinging back around the curves as lush, green stepped mountains rose all around us.
Every mile or so, one of the passengers would push their way up towards the door and get off. As the bus started to clear, I attempted to stretch a bit (keyword: bit. I couldn’t stand fully upright, being taller than the bus’ ceiling), and as I stepped back, I felt my heel push against something solid and soft.
“Ah. Bu hao yisi (excuse me),” I said, believing I had stepped on someone’s foot. I turned to face them and realized I had actually stepped on a chicken, trussed up and motionless on the floor. It looked up at me and blinked. The chicken’s owner, standing over it, eyed me with interest over the tendrils of smoke rising from his hand-rolled cigarette.
An hour later I was walking through Huangmao for the first time. The village center was a collection of shops about the size of a typical American strip-mall. From there, we walked along the village’s single road as it curved up and around vast fields of rice, more stepped farmland, small plots of grass with grazing cattle. We ran into Tiny’s brother, Mao, who had made the half-hour hike to town to use one of the Huangmao’s five computers.
At the last leg of the journey, I hopped across a small babbling stream, scaled a makeshift stone staircase, and found myself at Tiny’s home. It’s a small wood and mud-brick house at the base of the mountains, where the one road from town dead-ends in a natural cul-de-sac. It overlooks a shallow valley of rice and ponds. The house to the left is Tiny’s uncle’s. The next one down, her grandfather’s brother’s. There is electricity, but it isn’t used for much. A single exposed bulb hanging from the ceiling. A machine for shelling rice. And, somewhat out of place among the more archaic and modest surroundings, a small television. Neighbors pass by the front doors, herding their ducks along the trail, walking a cow on a rope leash. They stop by and sit on the chairs Tiny’s mother brings them, as they smoke and chat and then leave again, to continue on with whatever task they were breaking from.
There are only three beds in the house, so I shared one with Mao, sleeping head to toe. The bed frame was draped with a white, mesh curtain, and come nightfall I found out why. The incessant buzzing of mosquitoes surveying outside, probing for weakness and possible entrance inside, was the lullaby that sent me to dreamland.
And the crowing of the rooster brought me back. Come early morning, as the room began to lighten into that bluish pre-dawn glow, the first crows would echo from across the mountains, where dawn had already arrived. One by one, roosters with different vantage points would herald the coming of their own personal dawn. Ours began with a loud thump on the ceiling, as the family rooster found its perch. Cock-a-doodle-doooooo! And we all arose.
Tiny’s mother and father are rice farmers, so breakfast lunch and dinner are all rice-based. The other dishes vary, but it’s usually chicken, tofu, or stewed greens. The first night, Tiny’s father had offered me a beer with dinner. It was only the second beer I’ve had since coming to China, and it was bitter and good.
At breakfast the next morning, her father apologized. “I’m sorry, but I have no more beer. Is rice wine okay?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, as I’m not one to normally drink at 8 a.m. Mostly because I have yet to find a red that satisfactorily complements my Raisin Bran. Thinking that maybe he was a big drinker, and not wanting to make him feel out of sorts, I said, “Oh, no, wine is fine.”
He nodded, placed a cup in front of me, and retrieved a plastic jug full of clear liquid from the cupboard.
“But I can’t drink this, because my eyes aren’t very good,” he said, filling the cup.
His words, paired with the visual clue, should’ve told me everything I needed to know about this substance. Still, I was hopeful that it was just some strange Chinese wine I hadn’t seen before. I brought the cup to my lips. Oh mother of God. It’s baijiu (rice liquor). And not just any baijiu. This was some of the foulest, strongest liquor I’ve ever tasted. It made my lips picker, my brain buzz, my stomach somersault. This stuff would lift a motoroil stain off asphalt. If you filled a jar with it and placed a cucumber inside, an hour later you’d have a pickle. Two hours later, you’d have some strange sentient vegetable-based life form that would break from its glass prison and begin a campaign to conquer all of human society.
I piled rice into my mouth in an attempt to soak up the remaining taste of alcohol. Next, Tiny’s mother brought out the rest of the food. Breakfast was chicken and vegetables, and while I was appreciative of the meal, a bowl of oily, fried meat first thing in the morning just isn’t my style. Thus, I went for the greens and rice, mostly. Tiny’s father noticed, and I suppose assumed I was again being polite. He kept piling more chicken parts into my bowl. At first it was the white meat I’m used to, but as the meal wore on the meat got darker, bonier, and more…organ-ier. At one point he plopped a big, thick piece down on my rice, and gestured with his chopsticks. “Eat! Eat!” In the darkness of the room, I couldn’t quite make out was it was, and took a big bite.
Imagine a large pink rubber eraser, saturated in graphite and simmered in oil so it’s just chewy enough to swallow. That’s what I put in my mouth, and as my brain realized how awful the taste and texture were, it commanded my mouth to start chewing as fast as humanly possible. Swallowing it away couldn’t come fast enough. Unfortunately, looking back at my bowl, I realized my “big bite” had accounted for maybe 1/6th of the total piece of meat. And finally my eyes adjusted to what it was.
Now I’ll eat anything once, and most things twice, just to be sure. Chicken lungs, however, do not make that second list. They are, without a doubt, the worst thing I’ve eaten. And when I was in middle school, I once ate paintballs (on a dare). (Not that that makes it much better). As soon as I swallowed those lungs, I could feel my stomach get angry. “And just what the hell am I supposed to do with THIS shit?” it groaned up at me.
“I think you just answered your own question,” I replied. “Get it shit out as fast as possible. And make sure it goes THAT way. If it comes back up through here, it’s gonna be bad for both of us.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” my colon chimed in. “But I’m warning you, it’s not gonna be pretty.”
I wanted nothing more than to wash down that awful taste. I grabbed my cup. Ugh, fucking BAIJIU! Give me some more lungs so I can get this awful taste out of my mouth! And so the cycle could repeat infinitely.
Said infinite cycle is what I imagine hell might be like. Satan hands you a bowl of chicken lungs and a goblet of baijiu, and with a menacing smile, says, “Enjoy.” He then gestures to a nearby fountain of spurting molten lava. “Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands before you eat.”
After breakfast, Mao wanted to take me hiking. My brain was saying yes, but my body was telling me noo, noo noo. I clenched my jaw, trying to ignore my torso’s protestations, and marched forward. So glad I did.
While the first hour or so was a constant struggle to not collapse into the fetal position and cry for my mother, soon enough the nausea subsided, I suppose as the acids finally managed to break down all the capillaries and thick gray matter and send them on their way. We hacked through the underbrush, scaled the steppes, drank directly from the mountain streams. The air was crisp and clear, and when we finally reached the summit, the view was astounding. As much as I’d like to pass along some pictures from the trip, my computer and camera are currently not cooperating, so we’ll have to just leave it at that.
Along the way, Mao would periodically stop, clap his hands together, and point them like a gun into the woods. “There.” He’d hop over to the designated spot, yank a plant out of the ground, and, wiping it off with his hands, hand whatever was on the other end to me. “Try this.” And I’d smile, try to forget I knew anything about germ theory, and take a bite. Along the way, I ate something in the radish family, something in the potato family, and something that must’ve resulted from a crazy grape/pear/lemon orgy.
In an almost providential act of coincidence, my body finished processing breakfast just as we arrived back at the house late that afternoon. I headed for the toilet: an outhouse out back of the house with two ancient, creaky boards laid over a stone well full of shit. I did my business, tossed my paper in the metal tin full of others’, and turned to take a quick glance inside.
Is all that shit…moving?
It is. It’s all wiggly. What the heck? I looked closer.
Hundreds and hundreds of maggots.
Since coming back to Loudi, I have a newfound immense appreciation for my squatter. It’s (relatively) clean, connected to a plumbing system, and not full of hundreds of maggots. After a week without those luxuries, I’ve decided that’s all a man really needs anyway.
I hate to say I toughed it out, because once again I feel like an entitled little shit who has difficulty spending a week living how Tiny’s family lives a lifetime. But honestly, some things are just tough to get used to. An outhouse is one of them.
The other is bathing. Because there’s no plumbing in Huangmao. Fresh water comes from a well, poop goes into a hole in the ground, and bathwater is heated up in a pot over the woodstove and poured into a small round tub in the back room. The tub is about 2 ½ feet wide, and the pot fills it about 1/3rd full. After that, how you use it is up to you. I tried sitting in it once, but since I’m six feet tall, I found that to be more trouble than it was worth. From then on, I would just stand heel-deep in the water, shivering, scrubbing with a rag and trying finish the whole ordeal as quickly as possible. Whereas in the West, I’ve defined shower time as one of slow relaxation, in Huangmao I found it simply another troublesome daily chore. On top of that, I didn’t have shampoo, and neither did Tiny’s family. By the end of the week, my hair was a stiff, greasy mat that resembled those snap-on Lego man toupees.
It really wasn’t all that bad, but I say that because I only went a week. At the end of it, I really found myself wondering if I could ever get used to that lifestyle long-term.
One last interesting note on the bath: they keep the tub right next to the chicken pen. So if, next time while playing a round of Never Have I Ever, someone throws out something wacky like “Never have I ever bathed with a chicken,” guess who’s drinking?
Other than that, my days were spent walking around in nature, venturing into town, pretending I didn’t hear the sneers of “laowai” (foreign devil) muttered behind my back, taking pictures, trying to engage the locals in conversation (and failing miserably; Huangmao dialect is nearly incomprehensible to most other Chinese, and so way beyond my ability of intuition), and playing Chinese chess with Mao. I’m proud to say I won three games…out of about forty. The worst part was the way he’d giggle and ask, “Why?” before cornering me in the equivalent of a checkmate. Every. Damn. Time. It was infuriating. Especially because it wasn’t said with the least bit of condescension or intended offense. He was really just incredulous. WHY? Why would you make such a stupid move? Your strategy is so bad it’s laughable! Are you even paying attention?
What stands out most, however, is the level of hospitality I received all week long. Thinking back now, I still can’t believe how people with so little could manage to give me so much. They showed me the sights, introduced me to everyone in town, and generally just treated me like some foreign dignitary. When it came to helping around the house, I wasn’t allowed to lift a finger, and anytime I stood to wash a bowl or move a chair, the item would be snatched out of my hands, and I would be told to sit down and not be so polite.
But just like that, the week was over. The fact that pulling back into Loudi felt like returning to home sweet home was telling to what a drastic change Huangmao was. Given enough time, I suppose everything becomes normalized, and anything can become that anchor point, that unit of standardization. Maybe making the leap and living in the rice fields with an outhouse and a wood stove would be no sweat, given enough time to acclimate. Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
I suppose there wasn’t all that much else that happened this month. And even if there was, it’s past midnight now, and I’m supposed to be finishing Halloween decorations for the school. We’re throwing the students a Halloween party this Friday (yes, I know it’s November now). Being a native-born Halloween celebrator, I’ve been put in charge of much of it. While I’m a little stressed at the moment, I have only myself to blame. When Nick approached me with the idea, the homesickness and love of horror within me teamed up into an exclamation of excitement and a promise to oversee most of the event. “Oh yeah! I LOVE Halloween! We can bob for apples, and have a costume competition, and carve pumpkins, and make a haunted hallway with creepy red lights and hanging skeletons, and have a room with a dead body and use cooked noodles for its guts and grapes for eyeballs and tell the kids to reach in and feel all the organs, and make bloody handprints in the reception area, and hide behind the office door with a devil mask and jump out, screaming, and chase the kids as they pass, and…!”
Nick nodded and politely nudged his way back into the conversation. “Yes, but maybe it shouldn’t be…SO horrible? Because they’re children?”
So I’m pretty excited about the whole thing, and will let you know how it went next month. For now, I’ve gotta get back to painting a haunted tree and cutting out witches. So I’m signing off! Take care America! And have a Hallucinogenic Halloween!
(Perhaps fitting, if any of you end up trick-or-treating at that one creepy meth house down the road that you’ve always avoided in years past).